This is in response to a book, On the Origin of Stories by a Kiwi academic, Brian Boyd, subtitled Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. According to the back fly cover, Brian Boyd is ‘University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, University of
It’s an ambitious work in that Boyd attempts to explain, or, at best, understand, the role of art, and stories in particular, in the evolutionary development of the human mind. In this endeavour, he references the work of well-known exponents in the field, like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, but also many others.
Storytelling, or more specifically, literature, is a subject that attracted attention on Stephen Law’s blog earlier this month, and was taken up by others: Larry Niven and Faith in Honest Doubt are two that I’m aware of. Boyd’s book, like all good philosophical treatises, is provocative and introduces novel perspectives.
I’ll warn you in advance, that this is a very lengthy post, even by my standards. Having said that, I’ve written much longer treatises on the subject than this; so in some respects this could be considered the abridged version.
As a writer of fiction, and having once taught a course in fiction writing, I obviously have particular views of my own. I once wrote a letter to New Scientist (which was consequentially published) supporting the idea that art was like the ‘Peacock’s Tail’ in driving the development of the human brain. It’s an idea originally proposed by Geoffrey Miller, that art and intelligence evolved together in humans by ‘sexual selection’. Boyd makes the point that this is not the whole story and I suspect he’s correct, but I’m getting ahead of myself, so I will backtrack slightly.
Boyd’s book is broken down into 2 major parts (Book I & Book II), with the first part looking at evolution and cognition and art, and the second part looking at 2 iconic works in particular: Homer’s Odyssey and Dr Seuss’s Horton hears a Who! I’ll address Book I mainly, as it captures both the essence and the detail of Boyd’s ‘evolutionary’ thesis.
There are 2 main strands to his thesis on evolutionary human development: co-operation and ‘cognitive play’; the latter term being one that Boyd has coined himself to explain the origins of art per se. Co-operation, as Boyd expounds in detail, is a necessary attribute of any social species, of which there are innumerable examples in all areas of the animal kingdom from ants and bees to top predators. I won’t elaborate on this aspect of Boyd’s thesis, even though he returns to it often, but its significance to storytelling is that stories give ‘lessons’ in the role of co-operation or the consequences of betrayal – in other words, moral lessons. But this is only one component of a very complex picture.
Boyd’s elaboration on ‘cognitive play’ is far more interesting, if for no other reason, than it’s a novel concept that fits our experience and observations. He starts off by pointing out how play is an important part of the development of many species in that it tunes their sensory-motor responses and effectively ‘wires’ their brain in ways that are crucial for their survival as adults. The same, of course, is true for humans, but our development is particularly prolonged, and has been focused by cultural enhancements. And, in humans, the development of mental acuity is just as important (arguably even more important) as physical acuity, hence the role of cognitive play, which Boyd argues is the origin of art.
So cognitive play forms the same role as physical play observed in other species, only humans have taken it to another level, as we tend to do with anything mental. Boyd points out that singing in birds, or the ‘art work’ of a bower bird is another example, but these are examples of sexual selection behaviours, which may or may not be relevant to human artistic endeavours. In fact, Boyd argues that there are numerous examples of human art that are not performed or produced for sexual selection, which may be a by-product rather than the primary driver.
What he’s saying is that cognitive play, in the form of artistic, creative acts, is a means to ‘tune’ our brains for better cognitive skills rather than impress the opposite sex, though that does happen as we are all aware, but so does winning on the sports field.
And certainly, when we are children, we see art as playing, or certainly I did. Whenever I was given any spare time at all, I drew pictures and I drew compulsively right up to puberty when I lost interest altogether. So I see merit in Boyd’s notion of cognitive play, even if it’s based on my personal experience rather than objective observation.
Where I disagree with Boyd is in regard to what is the reward in art. Boyd argues that it is pattern that provides the pleasure (he says reward) and gives the example of music, as well as story. He explains how we have been ‘designed’ (he has no problem using the ‘d’ word in evolution, and neither do I) to look for patterns, and art rewards us in this regard. In music we anticipate the melody even when we listen to it for the first time and we find it unsatisfactory when it doesn’t meet our expectations of harmony or rhythm. The same is true of stories where we have expectations provided by plot development and are disappointed if our expectations are not met.
But, personally, I think Boyd is slightly off track here. What music and stories have in common is that they create tension and then resolve that tension. It is the resolution of the tension that gives the most satisfying reward. It’s unsurprisingly similar to the sexual experience, and in all cases we are rewarded with dopamine. It is no coincidence that the word ‘climax’ is used in all three contexts: music, stories and sex.
But there are other rewards: highly specific emotional rewards. I overheard a friend, recently recommending, to another friend, a book that she had read because it had aroused all her emotions. She said that it had made her laugh, cry, feel scared and angry. She had felt: compassion, sexiness, excitement, anxiety, despair and moral outrage; all in one book. Without, at least, some of these emotional rewards, stories would not hold our attention for long, if at all.
Speaking of attention, Boyd raises it as a special attribute, not just in reference to storytelling, but in regards to humanity in general. Attention seeking and attention sharing is apparent in infants from an early age, and, according to Boyd, is unique to humanity in its overriding dominance in infant behaviour. To quote: ‘Human one-year-olds engage in joint attention… indicating objects or events simply for the sake of sharing attention to them, something that apes never do. They expect others to share interest, attention, and response: “This by itself is rewarding for infants – apparently in a way it is not for any other species on the planet.”’ This last, indented quotation is Boyd quoting D.S Wilson quoting Michael Tomasello.
The upshot is that ‘attention seeking’ is one of the main drivers behind artistic endeavour and, based on personal experience, I would concur. Boyd quotes H.G. Wells: “Scarcely any artist will hesitate in the choice between money and attention.” Which explains why the great bulk of artists, now, and in antiquity, rarely received a livable income from their efforts. It’s a misapprehension, as I know from personal conversations, that artists seek fame to gain fortune, otherwise they’d all give up early. It’s equally misperceived that artists are happy to create works just for themselves or for the sake of the doing. Artists crave an audience above all else – it’s their whole raison d’etre.
Boyd talks about ‘creativity’ in Darwinian terms: how it’s almost a random process, or variations on accepted themes (like mutations) that get selected by the artist’s milieu or audience. He points out that it doesn’t have ‘value’ in biological terms but he gives examples of how it’s value-added in technology, and of how technology and art have had a symbiotic relationship (my terminology, not his). Printing allowed the production of novels that could be read in one’s own time, film technology gave us movies and recordings gave us music on-demand; these are all iconic examples.
But, to my mind, this strictly Darwinian interpretation underplays the role of imagination; although, to be fair to Boyd, he’s not dismissive of it, quite the contrary. Imagination is the ability to perceive some event or place or person that is not in the here and now. It could be in the past or the future, or another geographical location, or it could be completely fictional. As I pointed out in a previous post, we know that some animals have imagination, because they can imagine the outcome of a hunting strategy, otherwise how or why would they be able to do it? (Refer: Imagination, Mar. 08).
But we humans take imagination to another level, and art, all art, is effectively the projection of an individual’s imagination in the form of some external manifestation so that others can also experience it. In fact, this is as close to a definition of art as I can give. Imagination is the key to creativity – I find it impossible to conceive of one without the other. But imagination is also the key to the comprehension of a story (Boyd also appreciates this as I explicate below, though he uses different terminology).
After a lengthy exposition on the ‘theory of mind’: how it has evolved in primates and other species, and the stages it achieves at different ages in children, from causal inferences to the perception of others’ beliefs; Boyd eventually reveals an insight, that, as a writer, I already knew.
But first he explains the difference between semantic and episodic memory: the former dealing with facts and the latter dealing with events or experiences. Importantly, he references the work of Frederic Bartlett who made us aware that episodic memories are reconstructed in a way that we recollect the ‘gist’ of an event rather than any particular detail. Boyd points out that we reconstruct an episodic memory for its value in future encounters, rather than a need for knowledge per se, as we do with semantic memory.
Then he says: ‘Tellingly for this constructive episodic simulation hypothesis, imagining the future recruits most of the same brain areas as recalling the past… to provide a form of “life simulator” that allows us to test options without trying them in real life.’ (Italics in the original.) This, of course, is an accurate description of ‘fiction’, but it also occurs in dreams. As a writer, I’ve always known that the ‘medium’ for a story is not the words on the page, but the reader’s imagination, and, effectively, that is what Boyd is saying.
He makes the point even more emphatically when he quotes Barsalou: “As people comprehend a text, they construct simulations to represent its perceptual, motor, and affective content. Simulations appear central to the representation of meaning.” Boyd then goes on to explain how this specific human ability allows us to follow a particular character (he uses the word, agent) in a narrative. (I’ll come back to this when I discuss viewpoint.)
By the time Boyd starts to talk about narrative you’re well into the book, and what he’s really talking about is gossip, where we relate events to others concerning our interpretation of someone else’s viewpoint. Is this how fiction arose? I’m not sure. In the modern world it’s equivalent to journalism, and the differences between journalism and fiction are much greater than people realise. For a start, journalism is not art, and that’s a big distinction. Art must always engage one emotionally, and whilst both gossip and journalism can fulfill that function, fiction works on another level. Biography comes closest: a well-written biography can engage a reader as well as any fiction; but fiction is an art that few people master, in the same way that few people master musical composition. In fact, I would suggest that the difference between journalism and fiction is like the difference between someone performing a song and someone composing it.
I’ve always compared fiction writing to musical composition, even though I’ve done one and not the other. It’s just that writing fiction has more in common, in my mind, to music, than to writing non-fiction. Someone (I can’t remember who) said that all art comes back to music, or words to that effect, and, in my limited experience as an artist, I would have to agree. In fiction you create moods and emotions and responses, not unlike music, which is completely different to non-fiction. In journalism you can sometimes achieve the same, but it’s not the raison d’etre of journalism as it is in fiction.
Or is it? Consider that the ‘stories’ that attract attention are always the ones that horrify us, and if they don’t, the media ‘sensationalises’ them just for the sake of ‘good copy’. Just today, I heard an 8 minute interview with a survivor of the recent bombing in
I have my own theory: fiction, from childhood to adulthood, is about escapism. People ‘indulge’ in fiction to escape. Therefore, in my view, it has more in common, historically, with mythology than gossip. Comic book superheroes are our equivalent to mythology, from Tarzan living with the apes to Superman who came from outer space to provide a moral code that is as indomitable as his abilities. So fiction arose from the imagination escaping way beyond the bounds of our mortal existence. But with subtlety and more down-to-earth realism it became our earliest model of psychology, which Boyd alludes to on more than one occasion. I’ve always contended that fiction is a mixture of reality and fantasy, and how it’s blended varies according to the genre and the author’s proclivities.
Boyd doesn’t use the word, escapism, but the term, ‘pretend-play’, as the catalyst for storytelling, along with the need for novelty and surprise, especially amongst young children. He points out that only humans can pretend something to be something else, like an analogy, and children demonstrate pretend-play, including pretend-attributed objects (like sticks for swords and guns) from a very early age. Pretend-play certainly exercises the imagination, and escapism is the logical consequence of that. Escapism alludes to setting the imagination free: allowing it to roam beyond the everyday. The imagination needs exercise, in the form of ‘cognitive play’ just like any other aspect of our physiology. So I believe Boyd has provided a valuable insight with this novel concept.
If fiction originally started as play in the form of drama, then Boyd’s contention that cognitive play is the root of fiction makes a lot of sense, though I don’t believe that’s what he had in mind. Performing as a character for an audience is certainly one of the best sources of natural opiates one can acquire, as I can attest from personal experience. Probably equivalent to performing on a sports field, though I’m not in a position to compare. But if fiction started off as performance, then it makes more sense to me than the idea that it originated from our propensity for gossip, and I expect Boyd would agree.
However, we tend to think that fiction started as an oral tradition, as Boyd explores in his analysis of Homer’s Odyssey, but that too is a performance, albeit of a different kind to acting out a drama. Few people appreciate the similarity between writing fiction and acting a role, yet it requires a writer to create the role in their head even before the actor has seen it. I’ve always believed that the mental process is the same for both. It requires them both to mentally step into someone else’s shoes. When a reader becomes engaged in reading a work of fiction they become the actor in their own mind, only they’re not consciously aware of it.
Boyd repeatedly makes allusions to empathy and ‘mirror neurons’ in his text. In the
In his analysis of Odyssey, I have a subtly different perspective to Boyd, whose exposition I won’t go into. This is such an iconic work, that ‘odyssey’ refers to a genre in its own right. It represents, in one epic work, the most universal theme of all stories: the hero overcoming a string of adversities to achieve a life-saving, even soul-saving, goal. I believe this is such a universal theme in fiction, because it’s how we all gain self-knowledge and wisdom, even though we rarely admit it. It’s Socrates’ adage about the unexamined life in a narrative form: it’s only when we are seriously challenged that we seriously examine ourselves. It’s a universal theme that can be found in all cultures, including the Chinese I Ching: ‘Adversity is the reverse of success, but it can lead to success if it befalls the right person.’ Those very words encapsulate the theme of almost any work of fiction one cares to nominate.
One of the aspects of fiction, that Boyd touches on obliquely, is our ability to follow its thread when our limited working memory doesn’t allow us to keep the whole work in our mind for the story’s duration. In fact, a lengthy novel can be read over days without us losing our way, like rejoining a path after having a night’s sleep. One reason is that a well-written story states its premise* early on, and Boyd gives the example of Odyssey where we know the goal from the beginning. But a more contemporary example would be J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where she gives the premise for the entire 7 books in the first few chapters of the first book, so we know what it’s all about all the way through.
Subplots can be followed if they are all interwoven with the plot that the protagonist is following. In fact, every relationship in a story is its own subplot, and if all the relationships involve the protagonist then it’s no more difficult to follow than what we encounter in our own lives. And likewise, the hero’s journey is analogous to what we experience in real life, albeit the hero’s world is completely different to the one we live in. So when we read the story we are in the hero’s here and now, and we find that no more difficult than living in our own here and now. This is the power of human imagination - we can live a vicarious life as easily as we can live our own – escapism is fiction, or, more accurately, fiction is escapism, almost by definition.
On another level, there is a cognitive aspect to this that is more universal. We only comprehend new knowledge when we integrate it into existing knowledge. For example: we generally only understand a new word when it is explained using known words (just look up a dictionary). With a story, we are constantly integrating new knowledge into existing knowledge as the story progresses. So we are exercising a fundamental, uniquely human, cognitive skill while we are being entertained.
In his lengthy discussion on Odyssey, Boyd alludes more than once to every writer’s dilemma: how to meet the reader’s expectations, that the premise itself often creates, and also surprise them. Expectations are necessary if a storyteller wishes to engage their audience, but without surprises they will be less than satisfied. It’s the tension between plot and character that Boyd obviously appreciates, but struggles to articulate, that creates the dilemma, but also resolves it if the writer knows how. The plot provides the expectations and it’s the characters that provide the surprises – this is my own personal experience as a writer, and one of the secrets, I believe, of our craft. If a character surprises you as a writer, then you know they will also surprise the reader. The secret is to give your characters ‘free will’; that way they provide the spontaneity that differentiates fresh fiction from stale. Not all writers agree with me on this, but if my characters don’t take on a life of their own, then I know my story is not worth pursuing. (Refer my Dec.08 post, Zen; an interpretation, for an artist’s perspective, specifically Escher’s.)
This leads to another aspect of prose fiction, that Boyd explores in his analysis of Odyssey, which is multiple viewpoints. Good fiction doesn’t need a narrator, because it’s the characters that tell the story, which is another secret of the craft. Viewpoint should be internal not external, whether it be first person or third person intimate, and that is why they are the most popular viewpoints used in novels. Obviously, third person intimate allows greater flexibility and that’s why it is the most popular method of all. Character is the inner world and plot is the outer world, which makes plot synonymous with fate and character synonymous with free will; that is the secret of writing fiction in a nutshell.
This has been a much longer essay than I intended, but then fiction is a personal passion of mine, and Boyd’s tome covers an enormous territory.
However, there is still one aspect of fiction, specifically prose fiction, that hasn’t been addressed, and it’s not really addressed by Boyd either. He refers to ‘life-simulation’, as I mentioned earlier, which in effect is imagining future scenarios, which allows fiction to work, not only for the writer but also for the reader. What he doesn’t mention is the crucial role of imagery.
Right at the end of his book, Boyd discusses in some detail Dr. Seuss’s Horton hears a Who! which is a classic, and highly successful, children’s picture-book. Only once (in a radio interview with Margaret Throsby, ABC Classic FM) have I heard the issue raised as to why we progress from books with pictures to books without pictures, and it was raised by Margaret, from memory, not the interviewee, whom I’ve since forgotten.
I can still remember the first stories that entranced me, before I could read myself, and I believe it was the pictures, more than the words, that engaged me. (I also started drawing my own pictures from a very early age.) We had a series of classic fairy tales, in a comic book style, but with almost photographic-style coloured images, not cartoonish at all. But some of them I got my mother to read over and over again, though I used to look at the pictures while she read them.
Of course, when I was older, in the days before TV, I listened to radio serials and read comic books, which are closer to film than literature. Unlike other children, I would read the same comic over and over until I was well and truly sated with it. I liked the experience so much I would repeat it until it no longer engaged me.
But at some point, we make the transition to books without pictures, and we actually prefer them, because, for some reason, they engage us more. And I believe the reason is twofold. Firstly, we get inside the heads of the characters (via viewpoint as I mentioned earlier) in a way that can’t happen with comics, or even movies, and that is why books of fiction are not yet dead. Secondly, we eventually reach a point where it is just as satisfying to create our own pictures in our own mind, which, of course, we do without conscious effort. But it is like we learn to ‘translate’ words into the pictures of story, via our capacious and almost preternatural imaginations.
I made the point earlier, and in another post, that without the facility of imagination, no one would even be able to appreciate a story, let alone write one. But there is more: without the innate, indeed, prime-natural ability we have for imagery, cinema would have killed the novel a century ago (as I alluded to above). I’ve speculated previously that without language we would think in imagery. My evidence is dreams. We all dream in imagery and metaphor, and that is why stories are so easy for us. The language of story is the language of dreams.
* ‘Premise’, I’ve found in American texts on fiction, is often confounded with ‘theme’, even though dictionary definitions clearly delineate them. Premise is the foundation or starting point, both in the context of an argument or a story. Theme is a recurring motif, originally applied to music, but, in the context of a story, can be a message or a moral or an allegory or just an idea. The premise and the theme of a story can be the same, but mostly they’re not, and some stories don’t even have a substantial theme. But God help the reader of a story that doesn’t have a premise.